How long do users stay on websites? According to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, "not very long." In an age of information overflow, user experience can be the key factor that determines whether visitors get the information they need from your website.
User experience is becoming an extension of the customer experience model—and, undoubtedly, experience matters. Companies that will stay ahead of the curve are those that are constantly refining their content, adapting to an always-changing technology landscape, and asking their customers what they want and how they want it delivered.
So, how does the user experience on your website measure up? Here is a three-step approach to analyzing the usability of your website, along with key guidelines for improving its usability.
1. Analyze the content
Odds are you wrote much of the content for your website. Well, maybe not you, but your marketing team or your company's management team. The point is that you are very familiar with your content. But are your users?
Consider the following when writing or analyzing content for your website:
- Does your content pass the "common knowledge" test? You may be familiar with your processes and product or service offerings, but visitors to your site may not be. Use language that a broad audience can understand, and avoid acronyms or terms that are confusing.
- Don't be long-winded. Your nine-paragraph description of your top-selling product probably sounded great when you first wrote it. You included all of the intricacies and specifications—anything anyone would ever want to know! But do you think your clients have time to read nine paragraphs? Probably not. Keep content concise, and break up text with illustrations or photographs when possible.
- Not all at once. People can't handle information in large chunks. That's why we add hyphens to phone numbers, and why text messaging is so popular. Try implementing a "progressive disclosure" system of displaying information on your site. Show small chunks of information first—enough for the user to get a good understanding of what you're saying. Then, give her the ability to drill down and obtain more detailed information.
2. Look at the layout
One of the biggest hurdles for Web designers is the ever-changing landscape of devices that can access the Web. During your last website redesign, your website probably looked great in the browser you viewed it in. But what does your site look like on an iPhone or an iPad? How does it look on a projector in a conference room?
Consider that by 2014, more people are expected to browse the Internet via mobile device than desktop PC.
Making sure websites look good across all platforms will be one of the biggest challenges for Web designers over the next couple years. Accordingly, consider the following:
- Investigate a responsive design. A popular trend is responsive design, which uses CSS (cascading style sheets) and media queries to determine a user's device resolution (size) and delivers a site's content in a layout appropriate for that size. Using responsive design is a much more efficient alternative to having a mobile site and a desktop site.
- Beware of "the fold." The fold is the area of a Web page that the user cannot immediately see without scrolling down. Many users interact with what they see first, so including important information above the fold is an imperative consideration for your design.
3. Run a few tests
Speculating about how your visitors use your website is very different from actually knowing how they use it. Usability testing, which will give you that knowledge, can range from quick-and-simple process to long-and-arduous one. Try to get a good mix of quantitative information (e.g., website statistics) and qualitative information (e.g., focus groups).
Here are a few tests that will serve as a good starting point:
- Website statistics. If you employ a Web analytics program (Google Analytics is a great one), look at the statistics. What pages are your users spending the most time on? Least time on? Where are people leaving your site? That information will give you quick insights into the effectiveness of various pages on your site.
- Performance tests. How easily are visitors able to use your website? If you have the luxury of gathering a test group of users or a focus group, create simple exercises to measure the speed and accuracy at which they complete common tasks. Document common barriers they encounter.
- Subjective tests. Ask users how they feel about using your site (and always take responses with a grain of salt). Do they feel comfortable using your site? Are they satisfied with their ability to complete a task? Be wary of the sample size and demographics of your group when considering the results.
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Now that you know how to approach designing a more user-friendly website, you can take a few steps to improve the experience for your visitors and, in turn, increase the effectiveness of your site.